Why is communication so hard?!?  Most of us have wanted to shout that from the rooftops at least once in our lives.  I know I have, and effective communication is my area of expertise! 
When communication seems hard, it is because we are focusing on what's outside of ourselves. Either we try to memorize personality types, body language tips and role playing scripts, or we spend hours analyzing our own and other people's words & actions, trying to predict what will happen.  How exhausting - and confusing!
That's why I created The Communication Iceberg, a very simple tool that can help you to quickly figure out...
  1. What is driving conflict; 
  2. What is driving your own frustration, fear or discomfort; and 
  3. Where to focus in order to get what you want (e.g., resolve conflict, build relationships or get stuff done)

Before I explain the Iceberg, why not try a simple activity to see for yourself how it works? 
First, bring to your mind a current situation in which you feel communication is difficult. Do your best to think of the situation in detail, as if it were a scene in a movie.  Then, take a look at the blue portion of The Communication Iceberg and notice what catches your attention.  Next, ask yourself how the item in the Iceberg that caught your attention relates to your difficult situation.  Trust the first thing that comes to your mind.  That process will help you to understand what's really driving the difficulty.  Very often, I discover that the real driver is not at all what I had originally thought.  

For example, I used to be very hard on myself. I took pride in being a perfectionist, even though I never lived up to my expectations. I was afraid of disappointing people, especially my supervisor at work. When I was working for someone who was critical or rarely praised my work, I felt angry that my good work was not acknowledged.  On the surface, it seemed like my boss needed to change her behavior to make me feel better.  However, if I looked below the surface, I would have realized that it was my Deeper Feelings of inadequacy and my Unmet Needs for rest & authentic relationship that really drove my dissatisfaction.  Make sense?

Here's how The Communication Iceberg works: 
  • What's above the surface is obvious and reportable. It's what we usually focus on.
    • Focus here to define goals, set expectations, coach behavior and acknowledge excellence.
    • Be careful to avoid interpretation - Actions, Words & Reactions are obvious, but their meaning is not.
  • What's below the surface is internal.  It's what we usually ignore.
    • When we give it our attention, it guides us toward deep satisfaction and healing.
    • When we ignore or deny it, it drives negative reactions (e.g. fear, anger, blame, worry, despair).
    • Focus here to identify what's really going on within yourself.
    • Show this to others so they can identify what's going on inside themselves (even if you think you already know).

If you want to get stuff done or guide behavior, be specific about the words or actions that you want.  This works with goal setting very well. You could set the goal "I will lose weight."  Or, you could be specific and paint a picture of what you want to accomplish: "I will walk for 20 minutes every day." Can you see how being specific makes a goal more memorable and actionable? It works with management too; the more specific you are when setting expectations, coaching for improvement, or acknowledging excellence, the more your words will have the impact you desire.

If you want to build relationships or resolve painful reactions, be curious about what's below the surface-within yourself.  Once you recognize what's really going on, then you can decide how you want to address it.  When I became willing to look at how my perfectionism was hurting me, I decided to address it by reading books, spending time in reflection and working with a counselor. Many possibilities open up once we take responsibility for our own Icebergs.

If you are a manager, parent or teacher and you want to help other people to develop, show them the Iceberg.  It isn't your responsibility to guess what's in someone else's Iceberg - and, in fact, it's impossible. 


90% of what's really going on in communication occurs within ourselves.  The top of the iceberg represents what is obvious in communication - what is reportable.  Words and Actions, whether written, spoken, acted out in person or by video, are obvious. For example, "Annie arrived to work at 8:00am and she did not smile at me." Actions and Words are obvious but their meaning is not.  Unless you ask her, you won't know why Annie did not smile at you (hint: It's probably not about you).

Our brains take care of us by drawing conclusions, like If I sit on that chair, it will hold me.  Conclusions we draw about objects are pretty reliable. But, the conclusions we draw about  people they never listen to me; he said that because; what she really meant was - rarely are. 

The four items below the surface of The Communication Iceberg - Deeper Feelings, Unmet Needs, Assumptions and Unexpressed Wants - drive negative reactions.  You have the power to identify these within yourself and then take care of what's really going on.


At this point, you might be thinking, "Hey Annie, you said that communication was simple, and what you've shared doesn't seem simple at all. What gives?"  It's true, what you discover below the surface can be pretty messy or confusing.  

The reason I believe that communication is simple is that both the source of and the answers to what's really bothering us always lie within ourselves.  Effective communication isn't about understanding other people's motivations, personality or preferences; it's about understanding and taking responsibility for our own Iceberg.  The Communication Iceberg can help us to quickly identify what's going on below the surface, so that we can spend our time & energy on what really matters.

If you'd like more explanation, I'd be happy to answer your questions - just make a comment here or contact me through the contact form on the home page or call, 406-548-5753 .  Or, you can find much more information and guidance in my book The Secret Life of Communication: Opening to Unlimited Love.


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